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Fear is the Mindkiller

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Dune by Frank Herbert is one of the great science fiction books of the sixties, and I usually read it (and sometimes the entire series) once a year. It has never been adequately rendered on TV or film, perhaps because so much of the book deals with the interior states of the characters, something that narrative text can do so well, and visual mediums struggle with. 

One of those interior states dealt with in the book is fear. For the Bene Gesserit, the mystico-political sisterhood that haunts much of the book, the ability to control fear is the mark that distinguishes the human from the animal. 

For years (decades?) I have had what is called an anxiety disorder. The word anxiety brings to mind the feeling of anxiousness, but that doesn’t describe what I feel. What I feel is fear, sometimes panic.

Even ordinary everyday actions—turning on a toaster, leaving the apartment— can occasion fearfulness. I have been driving somewhere and had to turn back, because the fear is too great. These events are usually time-limited; often I am fine, with no trace of fear. Until the next one comes.

To some extent, the pandemic has both helped and hurt. I have a reason for my behavior. And an excuse.

For me this is a disorder of the imagination. My mind envisions all the bad possibilities. Rationally I know these are not the most likely outcomes for a particular action. But I can’t seem to convince my imagination. And this dialogue between rational mind and imagination becomes paralyzing.

I don’t take medication for this condition because I am afraid (that word again) that it will affect my imagination, which will affect my creativity. So I just try to get through the events as they occur. I try to sleep, or work (work is good), or have a cup of tea or listen to soothing music, or sing, or recite Shakespeare (the soliloquy from Richard III helps for some reason), or imagine the peaceful places I have been.

I’m not saying it’s a good plan, nor the best for everyone, nor even the best for me. But it’s the plan I have followed. I’m still here, and still writing. Though perhaps I would have written more, or better, with more or better help. Possibly. But a different plan would have required a choice, and choice often seems impossible.

In Dune, the Bene Gesserit teach a litany for dealing with fear. 

“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

That is what I do: ride the fear until it passes and only I remain. And it does. That is what I try to remember each time.

The fear will pass.

And I will remain.

 

 Image by Aino Tuominen at Pixabay

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The Narrowing

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 The summoning of Courage is the most dangerous of spells. For you cannot summon Courage to do one thing. You must summon Courage to do all things.”

As I turn 65, I am increasingly aware of a Narrowing in my life, the sense that the parameters, the boundaries, have closed in, and will continue to do so. My life, which had been a pyramid, has become a pillar. I am the atlas alone atop the stone, bearing the weight of the decisions that have placed me here

It makes sense in a way. The narrowing may have started soon after the most notable widening of my life. In 1993, I moved to Minneapolis. My wife and I had started our marriage in Washington DC, which was home to me. But she hated the traffic and her job and possibly me. So we decided to move to Minneapolis, her home of many years. I had hoped the move might rescue the marriage, but it didn’t. It did open my eyes in other ways, though, as moving someplace new can do. And Minneapolis, despite or because of the grand disruption of my life and plans, Minneapolis with its lakes and arts and smiling people, opened my creative heart, and the city became a muse.

My mind, which had always been pretty open, waited for its own muse, and it was not long in coming. In 1997, after the marriage had ended in the mutual recognition that we had engaged in hopes unfounded in reality or personality, I took a solo car trip across country, a transcendental journey described elsewhere. This was I think the widest moment of my life, where any road seemed open to me, reaching its apex on a highway on the plains of South Dakota, as the limits of the world fell away, the road went on forever, and the moment was defined by freedom.

But as I discovered on that trip, in choosing one road, others are let go. In the year or two that followed, I chose two roads. I chose to be a writer, and I chose to take care of family.

I see now (though I did not completely at the time) that in making those choices I let others go. Marriage or any kind of romantic partnership was not included. Deep friendships in essence became infrequent companions in practice. No one asked me to make these choices. I made them, and I don’t question the choices now, because they seemed best to me then, and what good would it do anyway? Focus and necessity became my principles, though perhaps they were only a cover. Perhaps the Narrowing had already begun.

My choices came with a cost, and that cost has become the Narrowing. My life is circumscribed into smaller and smaller limits. A trip to the store or Starbucks is my adventure for the day. I dream of travel, but the effort and stress and uncertainty seem beyond my powers. I don’t drive at night, or on the highway, or to places I don’t know. I have lived in this apartment for nearly twenty years, not because I like it (though for the most part I do), but because the thought of uprooting my life at this age, and from within this solitude, is daunting.

I watched this Narrowing towards the end of my parents life. Once world travelers, wonderful friends, wide readers, their world became chair and bed, television and tray, doctor and hospital. I live in a retirement community and I see daily that my life is not the only one Narrowed. Many others around me have been, by grief, by isolation, by illness, by money, by age itself.

The Narrowing in my case is based less on capacity than on fear. I see this. But so far I have not been able to work past it. As an intelligent person, I feel that I should be able to. I should be able to solve this problem. And sometimes I feel that I am on the brink. I am not sure of what–a widening, reformation, a renaissance? So far the brink is as far as I have reached.

Yet other times, as I sit in my chair and listen to music or read or write, I have a vision I can only dimly apprehend, like the Xanadu of Coleridge (without the opium), a vague sense that the Narrowing is in its own way a transition to be embraced.

As the pyramid narrows into the pillar, the atlas atop climbs higher. The base is more unsteady, and toppling is a twist away. But the scene is expansive. We see farther, and further. Beyond ourselves. And when the clouds dissipate, the view will be transcendent.

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The Calm Before the Storm

 

It’s a quiet night.

I look out the window and see only darkness.

The outdoor Christmas lights have been shut.

The stillness is eerie.

 

Not a sight of the storm yet.

No wind, no showers, just darkness and silence.

It seems like a calm night.

But my radar is up.

 

My sleep tonight will be on guard.

Awaiting the sudden surge to arrive.

A powerful storm arrives before Christmas.

Fingers crossed, Christmas won’t be lost.

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That black hole of love

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A gut in endless summersault, a head in spin ... an attack is now. It’s personal. It’s senseless. Humans can be senseless, actions and words can be careless and pointless, even if they come from a place of passion. Whether that’s misguided or not, whether I understand or not, is irrelevant.

Then from nowhere in this tumult that rages as a wild sea, mother instinct kicks in and big sister armour spikes out. The loyal friend shell hardens, ready for any skirmish that may come. Passion heats as a cauldron of boiling oil and the fierceness of the King of the Jungle emerges.

Yet underneath the layers of shields and barbs of thousands, a stomach still wrenches in subterranean caverns, over craggy mountains jagged that scrape any soul bare, through bogs of black and bracken that render all motion, motionless ... those children, leave those children alone!

And suddenly, physical reactions to instincts that aren’t seen give way to a heart that needs no armour, a heart that is the core of existence. A heart knows the depths of love of family and friends where limits are non-existent. A heart knows that in the slightest breath of a whistle call, those hearts will come together to become a black hole of love with its own life force. It’s the black hole of love of the universal family where distance is no barrier and passion is its own entity that runs deep through a complex stratal network that can’t be unravelled.

It’s obvious as we stand to farewell one of our own, that we are who we are, in numbers that double and triple, as beings that reverberate beyond this space. 

And in that moment, the first spike of armour retracts, the shell begins to soften. Fear starts to dissipate into that black hole of love of the universal family, a love that in times of farewell shines from crevices normally submerged. There’s no place for fear when a family unites in invisible armour. Our children are fine. Our armour together is invincible. 

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